Unsung heroes: an interview with community health worker Shirley Sung

As the effects of COVID-19 impact us in all aspects of the everyday, we have come to appreciate now more than ever the work that healthcare professionals do on the frontline. While many are rightfully recognized for their efforts and sacrifices during these difficult times, there are pockets of healthcare workers that do not necessarily share the same spotlight. Instead, these workers keep our healthcare system intact while remaining largely unseen.

Cold Tea Collective got the chance to speak with Vancouver-based community health worker Shirley Sung to learn more about her experience and challenges working during this unprecedented time.


Cold Tea Collective: Tell me about your work as a community health worker.

Shirley Sung: As a community health worker, I primarily work at patients’ homes instead of community care facilities but I can do both. My job involves providing care services for elderly patients according to established care plans. I follow [these plans] to provide the necessary home care services, which include general housekeeping, personal care, meal assistance, and companion care services. 

Source: Shirley Sung

Cold Tea Collective: What led you to choose this career?

Shirley: I chose this profession initially because I had a personal need to provide home care services for family members — my ailing mother in Toronto, and my parents-in-law in Vancouver. During my husband’s passing, I also needed to make a living as the family’s breadwinner, so I decided to become a community health worker.

I’m really happy to have become one as I can really apply my knowledge and skills to those in need, including my family.

Cold Tea Collective:  How did you feel as cases of COVID-19 became more prominent in your community?

Shirley: I’m aware that I’m more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 by working in the frontline as a community health worker. As COVID-19 became more prevalent, I became more concerned because I have elderly family members to take care of. However, what has been reassuring for me is that I am closely connected to my patients, and my workplace has clear protective and preventive protocols to guide me. Ultimately, I understand that as a health worker, I cannot be overly concerned as long as I’ve done my job and followed the protocols.

My children think my job is too dangerous during these times, but I believe I have a duty to care for my patients. I don’t need to take extra days off if I’m healthy and capable of fulfilling my duty, but to address my children’s concerns, I have talked to my supervisor to keep my current work schedule consistent [without] too many extra shifts.

Source: Shirley Sung

Cold Tea Collective: Do community health workers like yourself feel prepared, informed, and protected? How have you and your workplace been approaching the situation?

Shirley: Among my colleagues, we stay positive by supporting and encouraging each other. During these times, the supply of personal protective equipment appeared low at one point, and we were somewhat concerned, especially when we couldn’t immediately reach our supervisors while managing our patients at their home. We reported these concerns to our supervisors afterwards, and our workplace listened and provided the resources as requested.

We also receive updates from our workplace on COVID-19 through newsletters and guidelines, as well as protocols on self-reporting and changes to public transit to keep us informed and prepared. All these preparations and resources have kept us feeling more reassured.

Cold Tea Collective: What are some of the difficulties of this profession?

Shirley: Language barrier can be an issue initially with certain clients. For example, I have Mandarin-speaking patients who may not understand English or Cantonese, the languages I speak. I can gesture to communicate but if that fails, it can be nerve-wracking and cause conflicts. I may not understand a patient’s requests or they may misinterpret my instructions.

Other issues include my inability to lift heavier patients without assistance during single-person shifts, or dealing with patient demands that are beyond the care plan. I do my best on the spot, and these issues are always communicated with my supervisor.  However, I make it a point to maintain my professionalism despite these challenges to ensure that the safety of my patient and myself is priority.

Cold Tea Collective: What is the most fulfilling part of being a community health worker?

Shirley: The most fulfilling part of being a community health worker is the opportunity to communicate and build relationships with the patients. It is a good feeling to gain my patient’s trust, and going from a stranger to someone they feel comfortable telling their life stories to.

Source: Shirley Sung

Cold Tea Collective: The public appreciates all the sacrifices that healthcare professionals have given to keep us healthy and safe, especially during COVID-19. Is there any message you wish to tell to the public regarding your work?

Shirley: I think because we serve on a single or per-family basis, only patients and their family can truly appreciate our services and what we contribute to the overall healthcare industry. The general public may not understand this because our profession is less visible and the complexity of our duties may not be as appreciated. However, the communication and logistics required for this occupation is truly complex, even though it occurs mainly behind the scenes.

Being an experienced community health worker, I see and appreciate the service I provide to the families I help, and I hope the general public can come to appreciate the same.

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